Before we began our descent into Doha International, I was staring absent-mindedly out of the window across the clarity of the diamond night sky over the desert. All of a sudden, my line of sight was drawn downwards toward an intense orange glow beneath the thick, bulbous grey covering of cloud. The landscape was punctured by a dozen or so spheres of fire burning in a distinct line across the ground below for what seemed, from our altitude, like fifteen or twenty miles. I checked on the in-flight map and saw that we were flying over southern Iraq.
Qatar: the world’s richest family affair
Conditioned by the relentless drip-feed of news stories filtering through our television sets, mobile phones, and computer screens – which are often distorted by expeditious, energy-hungry western political agendas – it is easy to forget the very tangible impact that the discovery of vast, untapped reservoirs of this planet’s most sought after natural resources have had on the Middle East’s economies, geography, people, and politics. Nothing was more manifest of this point than this line of fire as I crossed southwards from Iraq towards its neighbouring Persian Gulf States: Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. It is said that in some places in this region you can walk a few hundred metres into the desert, kick at the sand, and strike oil. The question did cross my mind: should I have packed more than just flip-flops?
Of all the astronomically affluent countries in the resource-rich Persian Gulf, it is Qatar who at can boast of the highest level of growth at present. The host of the 2022 football world cup is the world’s richest country per capita, a country of 1.7 million nationals and migrant workers, which is the world’s leading exporter of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNR), as well as a leading global supplier of dry natural gas, crude oil, and petroleum. In 2013, Qatar produced 1.6 million barrels of liquid fuels a day. Unlike in Iraq, Qatar’s natural resources are in the firm possession of the royal family, the al-Thanis. Last year, following the regional turmoil of the Arab Spring, the inveterate Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who had ruled the small Gulf state of Qatar since overthrowing his father in 1995, handed over power to his more progressively-minded son, the now incumbent emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, educated at Harrow school and Sandhurst college. The government and rule of Qatar is very much an al-Thani family affair and they have made it clear to western powers that their current concern is continuity, not wholesale change, and that the voluntary abdication was about generational transition, not democratic reform. Qatar, like neighbouring Saudi Arabia, remains an absolute monarchy.
From the underdeveloped backwater to a global power
Doha as a city – and by extension, Qatar as a country – lends fresh meaning to opulence and luxuriates in its position as one of the global economy’s premium energy suppliers. In recent decades, Qatar has been transformed from a supine, underdeveloped backwater in the shadow of neighbouring Gulf States to become a global political, energy, and financial power. Its capital city has shared in this transition and has leaped upwards on a breathtaking scale. The Central Business District (C.B.D.) is punctuated by towering buildings and assorted skyscrapers, artificial obelisks of Doha’s burgeoning future. During the day, they rise impressively against the blue sky, modern, metallic, and shimmering in the intense sunlight, flanked by the emerald green waters of Doha bay. At night, the dark sky is punctuated by myriad bright lights, pulsating electric blues, reds, oranges, purples, yellows and whites. Everywhere around the city – from the C.B.D. to disparate government buildings and ministries to the stadia and zones under development for the 2022 world cup to the more remote residential districts – there is the industry of labour and the buzz of construction on a mind-boggling scale. The architecture is a novel blend of classic and contemporary and a bold statement of Qatar’s Arabic heritage and their propitious global future.
Unsurprisingly, in a country built on oil and natural gas, you don’t have to worry about fuel economy. American muscle is a real favourite amongst the Qataris and the sizeable Ex-Pat community – Dodge Challengers, Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Camaros. Most people, however, prefer four-wheel-drive – Escalades, Landcruisers, GMC’s, Dodge Rams, and desert-equipped Ford F150s. Take a trip to one of the hotels on a Thursday night and you’ll see where the wealthy Qatari business man in Doha city gather to parade their wealth, rolling up in Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Aston Martins, Rolls Royces, and Bentleys. Cars are an indicator of wealth and a sign of affluence. In a city of almost limitless wealth, the vehicle which you commute has become a cultural currency in its own right.
Experiencing Qatar: sport, art, food, driving, shopping and much more!
There is only one word to properly describe the streets of Doha: intense. At any hour of the day, the roads are gridlocked, and it is no different at night. They live on the horn and there is rarely a quiet moment on the roads. Driving in Qatar’s capital city is an experience in itself. Within minutes of leaving the hotel, I’d seen a driver veer right across four lanes of rush-hour traffic – although every hour is rush-hour – to pull into a parking bay. They are not bad drivers per se, it’s just that they drive with a reckless abandon which is far removed from the caution I am more accustomed to. The roads might appear lawless, but there is an element of method in the madness. Right of way is a matter of who dares wins. Roundabouts are a maelstrom of close shaves and near misses. It would give you a real dose of the fear at the prospect of your own mortality if it didn’t seem almost second nature to them all. The local drivers approach the roads with a calm confidence and flexibility and, surprisingly, you soon begin to approach the gauntlet with the same attitude.
Doha is a culturally rich city with attractions for residents and tourists alike – although you’ll need some serious disposable wealth to enjoy some of the things the city has to offer. There are shopping centres and outlets dotted around the city. If you want the traditional shopping experience, visit Souq Waqif, especially at night. Souq Waqif translates literally as ‘the standing market’. This is the traditional Arabic (and North African) shopping experience. In the souq’s endless passages and thoroughfares, there is a plethora of stalls selling everything you’ll never need from hand-carved tourist trinkets and old Nokia 3310s to traditional Arabic artwork, Rolexes (real and fake), falconry equipment, and ceremonial daggers and swords. The souq is alive with energy, people, and music, a historic marketplace where the local people gather to drink coffee, eat, socialise, and shop. Wandering aimlessly, you can gain a glimpse into a not too distant past which survives unabated into the present.
If you want to see more of Qatar and the region’s culture, there are several free museums around Doha, like the Museum of Islamic Art, the Qatar National Museum, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, the Orientalist Museum, and other smaller public and private collections. There are also several famous forts, archaeological, and historical sites outside the city, as well as many examples of Qatar’s rich architecture in the city’s palaces and mosques. Doha also boasts its own smorgasbord of contemporary culture and night-life as well, from contemporary jazz bars and live reggae on the beach to Grandmaster Flash in concert.
For those who enjoy being active, there’s football, golf, go-karting, boating, fishing and quad-biking and dune-buggying in the desert. If you can afford it, you can even enjoy the favourite past-times of the Qatari elite: falconry and shooting. For those who wish to make the most of the sweltering 40 degree heat and cloudless blue skies, there are ample luxury hotels, swimming pools, and beaches. For the food-lover, Doha’s restaurants offer all kinds of international cuisine: Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Malaysian, Thai, Indian, Nepalese, Mongolian, Italian, and – unsurprisingly – McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Dairy Queen. If you’re looking for a wild night, unfortunately you’re probably on the wrong side of the Mediterranean. Alcohol is a licensed substance in the country, meaning that you cannot purchase or consume it freely. Drinking is permitted only in hotel bars, but be prepared to pay well over the odds for your bottled beers, mojitos, and White Russians. There is one shop in the whole of Qatar where you can buy alcohol and you will need a Liqueur License, which are only granted to expats by the government on a special dispensation. It is around a thirty minute drive from the city and the traffic in and out could rival Calais. On top of that, drunkenness in public is punishable by immediate arrest. So, Qatar might be a good opportunity to embrace sobriety and detox for a week or two.
The controversy of the Kafala System
For those who work in Qatar in the dominant energy sector or the ancillary financial or insurance sectors – Qatari national or expatriate – it is tax free. Where there is vast wealth for some, however, there is also a relative scarcity of wealth for others. The majority of Qatar’s population is constituted by its 1.8 million or so migrant workers, the bulk of whom work in the construction and hospitality sectors. As you drive around the city, you will often see workers sleeping in the shade by the side of the road under the palm trees, sheltering from the afternoon sun, and eating their lunch from recycled metal tins. A lot of this gulf state’s migrant workers are drawn from the Philippines, Nepal, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh and are part of the controversial kafala system. The kafala system has come under significant scrutiny from international commentators and critics alike and has raised questions over mistreatment, confiscation of passports and false imprisonment, accusations of slavery, and a number of deaths. It is difficult to know how to adjudge your initial reaction to the thousands of workers who you see around the city on a daily basis on building sites, in hotels, and in restaurants, when you are aware that many of them are working to provide financial security for their families back in their home countries. I met a young Nepalese gentlemen in the Radisson Blu whose story struck a chord with me. He shone the shoes of wealthy businessmen and tourists to earn money to send back to his family in Nepal. They live in a small mountain community. From his back door, he could see Mount Everest.
It is difficult to know quite how to traverse the choppy waters between concern and sympathy, especially when you consider your own opinion from a privileged position of relative wealth and quality of life. Western critics should perhaps be more mindful of and sensitive to the individual stories of those benefitting from Qatar’s boom, rather than considering only the economic implications of cheap labour to the free market and global competition between nations and governments. (And, of course, let’s not overlook the possibility of hypocrisy. I, for one, enjoy the benefits of a society whose period of rapid growth and industrialisation will forever be remembered as the era of the Victorian workhouse and whose own contemporary record on cheap foreign labour has conveniently been brushed under the carpet on more than one occasion.) However, there have been and remain to be patent dangers to the rights of certain individuals who have fallen foul of legal loopholes in the kafala system, or injured or worse, whilst under its protection, faults in the system which must be put right.
Wherever you are in Doha and wherever you look, there are signs of the country’s future. Qatar is a small country with massive global influence which is navigating the difficult path to becoming a stalwart of global energy resources, much like its neighbour, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Doha is a city which blends traditional aspects of Qatari life and Islamic culture and the modernism of the international community which has invested so much into the city’s infrastructure over recent years. It is a country in the ascendancy. As you drive out of the city, the desert is covered by tectonic mountains of sand, concrete, and scree for the region’s endless commercial developments and construction projects. It is outside the city that you also glimpse the logical consequence of Qatar’s present and future as a global energy provider: high-security industrial complexes, oil fields, and drilling plants around which linger the nebulous, brown haze of pollution.
Qatar has an incandescent future. It is a country which will no doubt go from strength to strength in the era of the energy superpowers which is fast approaching us. However, Qatar’s is a future founded upon consumer culture, a now almost insidious consumption-driven lifestyle, and the unsustainable fossil fuel industry, begging the question, how sustainable is Qatar’s bright future?